My Made-Up Life



I recently returned from Florida where I spent a week cleaning out my mother’s house so that I can sell it and pay for the memory care facility where she presently resides.

When I finally got around to the bathroom I groaned. Not because it was filthy or because it stoked my ever-simmering sadness, but because my mother never in her life left the house unless she was wearing makeup.

And oh boy, did she ever have a lot of it.


She was the Countess of Cosmetics, my mother was. The Baroness of Blush. I remember as a child sitting cross-legged on the floor, watching her “put on her face.” I was fascinated by the vast arsenal of products splayed out across her large counter top. Mesmerized by the precise dedicated manner in which she applied the foundation, the liners, the sticks and shadows. It seemed like it took her forever, and I can still hear the echo of my father’s impatient voice imploring her to “Come on already.”

By the time I reached the age where many girls begin enthusiastically experimenting with makeup, I wanted nothing to do with it. I was far more interested in embellishing my mind than my face. Instead of blackening my lashes with mascara, I hid in my room darkening my thoughts with Sartre.

It just about killed my mother. She hated that I “didn’t take pride in my appearance,” and she often wondered aloud (jokingly, I think) whether the hospital had handed her the wrong baby by mistake.

“Even as a child, I knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want to wear red lipstick.”― Patti Smith

It wasn’t as if I were trying to make a statement by avoiding makeup; I just preferred how I looked without it. I preferred how all women looked without makeup, and didn’t really understand why they would want to hide their natural beauty behind artificial colors.

Most of my girlfriends wore makeup, I guess because it made them feel better about themselves. They knew how I felt, but still they often ganged up on me before a high school dance, pleading with me to bedaub my face with synthetic color, insisting that I would look prettier. Better. Sexier.

I always resisted. Regardless of peer pressure, media pressure, or maternal pressure, I knew I was never ever going to wear makeup. Not for any friend. Not for any man. Not for any reason.


Long ago, before most Russians even knew there was such a thing as the Internet, I was living in Seattle in a tiny studio apartment on the top floor of a five-floor building overlooking Highway 5. I had a minuscule deck outside my window where I would sit and smoke while watching the ever-rushing traffic below me. If I craned my neck just so, I could see the Space Needle shooting up between two ugly office buildings. After crawling back through the window I’d sit at my desk-cum-dining room table and research possible markets for a genetics software program that my super smart friend Tim was creating to allow breeders—cow, cat, plant; you name it—to input genetic data into a graphic interface. He named it InGenius, and, if he ever finished writing the code, it was going to take the software world by storm.

While waiting for Tim to deliver me a shrink-wrap-ready product I got a call from my father (at that point we were still on speaking terms), asking me if I wanted to go to Russia.

“To do what?” I asked with ignited interest. I mean Russia? Boris Yeltsin had just been elected President, and the country was throwing open its previously shuttered doors to the rest of the world. I wanted to be one of the first foreigners to step through.

“You’d be selling makeup,” my father replied.


The cosmetics giant, Maybelline, had recently transitioned their ubiquitous bluemaybellineblue-colored packaging to an au courant black, and now they needed to unload a few million units of the old stuff. My father, a man who was forever spawning some unconventional deal, somehow fell in with the owner of the corporate trading company charged with selling off the démodé eye shadows and blushes and lipsticks to fashion-starved Russian women. In order for my father to be in on the arrangement, he needed to come up with the sales rep.

He picked me. The woman who knew nothing about selling makeup, let alone applying it.

“Oh, and you’re going to peddle your own skincare line, too,” he continued. “The company will create it for you.”

“My own—?”

“Yeah, I figured you should go over there as a, a personality, you know? Like an American starlet. They’ll eat it up. Your new name is going to be Lissa. Lissa Cazzel.”

“But I have no idea how to—”

“You’re going to have a ball, Lissa Cazzel,” he said interrupting me before I could list my concerns. “You fly to New York next week.”


And so it was that I allowed a Vietnamese woman to glue long red acrylic fingernails over my own short unpainted ones. I submitted to makeup lessons, using only Maybelline products. I slathered baby blue eye shadow across my lids and fiery orange lipstick over my lips, because women in Russia, I learned, lusted for those colors.

I was outfitted with a new sexy skin-hugging wardrobe. I agreed to wear very high ankle-cracking heels and lots of costume bling (after storing away the Tibetan yak bone choker I bought at a crafts fair in Portland).

I assessed my eponymous product line, sniffing the bath gels and rubbing the lotions onto my skin. They smelled like cheap perfume. When I suggested a more subtle scent, I was told that women in Russia love strong smells. The stronger the better.

Two weeks later, I landed in Saint Petersburg with two suitcases full of clothes and eight boxes filled with makeup and Lissa Skincare products, and checked into Hotel Astoria. It was the same hotel where Hitler had planned to celebrate his conquest over the city.

Good thing that party never got started.

And you know what? Other than having the hardest time removing my contact lenses with my red talons, I did have a ball. I traveled all over Russia and Czechoslovakia, and even into parts of Finland, meeting with beauty shop owners and store managers and government officials (as well as unofficials).


Meeting with Czech officials

Every morning I awoke before dawn so that I had enough time to “put on my face”—my very painted face—before rushing to meet Tanya, my interpreter, in front of the hotel. (As she was a Russian citizen, armed guards barred her from entering the hotel.)

Besides helping negotiate business deals, Tanya was also my tour guide and companion. She instructed me to stay silent and look angry while pushing me along the much shorter Russian-Only lines at museums and other tourist attractions.


He’s the one on the couch wearing glasses

Tanya protected me from making bad decisions. During an informal business dinner in Tanya’s tiny apartment (she had to share it with her ex-husband), a Georgian businessman asked me to marry his son, a war hero. When he showed me his photo, I almost accepted his proposition on the spot, since the guy was so handsome. Tanya leaned forward and, with a false smile on her face so the Georgian wouldn’t know what she was saying, told me that the son had been shot in the head during the war and was presently in a vegetative state. His father desperately wanted his son to receive better medical care, and figured it’d help if he married an American starlet.


Lissa Cazzel

And, since no business deal in Russia can ever be closed without first making many toasts with many shots of vodka, Tanya also taught me how to drink for hours at a time without falling face-first into my borscht and effectively blowing the sale.

Which is why, when I finally departed Russia, I gladly gifted Tanya the rest of my samples. She would have enough blue eye shadow to last her a few lifetimes.

It wasn’t as if I had any use for them. The moment I landed back home, I cleaved off my fingernails, scrubbed my clogged pores clean, and went back to being au naturale.

My mother kept a framed photo of me from when I was in Russia. The one where I looked “so attractive.”

It wasn’t that my mother didn’t think I was pretty. She just loved makeup so much, she couldn’t help herself.

Mom couldn’t help herself the day I got married, either. After she fastened the back of my wedding gown—a 1960s dress from Paris that I bought at a consignment shop—I turned around to face her. Of course I expected her to say, “You look beautiful.”

Instead she said, “Would it kill you to wear a little lipstick?”

Sure, I’d compromised my anti-makeup beliefs to be able to go to Russia. I also knew it would make my mother wildly happy to see her only daughter wearing makeup on her wedding day. And yes, there was a small part of me that thought my wedding album might shine a little brighter if I smeared some color across my skin.

But I really wanted to be my best unmade self that day.

“No,” I stated with a small smile. “I want Victor to recognize me when I walk down the aisle.”


I’ve always thought my mother was more stunning without makeup, but the only time I ever saw her facially naked was in the mornings when she awoke, or sometimes late at night, if I went to sleep after she did. As she read her book in bed I’d lean over her to kiss her goodnight, silently breathing in her clean clear skin. I loved it when she didn’t smell like synthetic dyes.

She smells like that now. Now that she no longer wears makeup. Now that she needs to be reminded how to use a phone. Now that she has no idea what day it is. Now that dementia is taking over her brain.

She’s still adept at conversation. She remembers the distant past, but has no idea what she ate for lunch. She recognizes people, but often sees or hears those who are not there, like her dead mother or my brother who lives in California.

Remarkably, she doesn’t seem to care about makeup anymore, and leaves her room in the morning completely fresh-faced, straight from the shower.


Pablo Picasso – Girl Before A Mirror

Perhaps it’s because she doesn’t want to look at her own face anymore, and so putting on makeup has become more of a burden than a desire. The woman who used to check her makeup in every mirror she passed, now avoids them. I wonder if it’s because when she glances in the mirror she sees the shadows framing her reflection, the ones that are slowly smothering her mind.

As much as I miss the woman who cared too much about what other people thought about her looks, I am grateful that she will spend her remaining days looking like her real self.

She was beautiful then. She’s beautiful now. Just a different kind of beautiful.

*This essay originally appeared on





While shopping at Trader Joe’s the other day I kept getting interrupted by phone calls from Nancy, my elder care advocate. Nancy was helping me try to get my mother removed from a particularly ghastly nursing home where she was presently confined.

As I wandered the store aisles, my phone up to my ear, I kept distractedly piling item after item in the upper child-seat section, never noticing that I had neglected to flip the red guard/seat upward. shoppingcartWhen I tossed a box of tomato soup onto the ever-growing heap, the stack shifted, and suddenly jars and cans and packaged vegetables were flying out through the opening.

Thankfully, the only thing that broke was a jar of coconut oil which exploded on contact, leaving behind a three-foot-long trail of white goop and glass.

“I am so sorry,” I said to the TJ employee who appeared the moment after I told Nancy I had to hang up. “Let me help you clean it.”

“No. No,” the smiling woman said. “Please step away. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

When I hesitated, she shooed me with her hand. “Would you like me to go get you another jar?”

“Do I want you to, what? No. I can do it. Thank you.” Embarrassed, I backed away, grabbed another coconut oil, and went to the registers. As I waited to pay, I suddenly remembered when the same thing happened to me while we were living in Bali.

Well, almost the same thing.

Loy had needed more cheese for her ham and cheese sandwiches, and it wasn’t as if I had a whole lot to do that day. I’d asked I Made to take me to Bintang, the gigantic supermarket at the far edge of Ubud. As was customary, I handed him 5000 rupiah so he could buy himself an ice cream cone to eat while he hung out with the other drivers.

I opened the door and waited for the AC impact…there….ahhh. Heaven. I threw a few bags of pasta into the shopping cart, found a new kind of local madu (honey) to try, then made for the beer shelves. As I loaded bottle upon bottle of the large-sized Bintangs, one slipped through the bars of the upper part of the cart and crashed to the floor, beer spraying five feet in diameter around me. I stood there until a young man showed up with a mop-like apparatus. I mumbled “maaf,” (sorry), and sauntered over to the cheese room hoping to find a block of imported cheddar for less than $8.

No luck, but I bought some anyway. Then I picked through the tubs of high-priced yogurt looking for an expiration date that wasn’t within the next 72 hours. I leaned over the freezer section and longingly fondled a package of frozen flour tortillas. It actually hurt my heart to see tortillas being treated as a luxury item.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed two armed guards eyeing me as I came out of the guardfrosty meat/cheese/milk/fish room, so I smiled at them. They smiled back and then followed me over to the rice area.

Selamat sore,” I said, thinking they were just curious about the American shopper’s shopping habits and wanted to know which brand of rice appealed to me the most. But when I approached the checkout line they were still shadowing me enough to make me a little nervous.

“What?” I said.

They ignored my question. One of the men went around and stood next to the checker while the other planted himself where the bag boy was stationed.

Now they were totally freaking me out. I started unloading my shopping cart, watching my hands, waiting for them to suddenly morph into claws because I wasn’t in the real world anymore. When I looked up at the sweet young checker for some show of supportive reality, she wouldn’t meet my eyes.

Apa? Apa?” What? What? I asked.

Finally, just as the last of my items reached the scanner, the guard near the cash register said, “You pay for beer.”

Of course I was paying for the beer! Didn’t he see the big wad of rupiah I had in my hands? I was paying for all my groceries, wasn’t I?

“You pay for rusak beer.”

 Rusak? But I just bought eight bottles of Bintang. What’s this other brand you’re talking about?

Tidak mengerti,” I said. I really did not understand what he was trying to tell me.

“Broke! Broke beer!” the guard barked so loudly, the people in the other checkout lines  all looked over and gawked at the rich ex-pat, the one causing a crease in the smooth order of things.

What the heck was going on? OH! They wanted me to PAY for the broken beer!

I was stunned into paralysis for a beat, then handed the girl another 12,000 rupiah, took hold of my green plastic bags and made for the exit, smiling so densely at the security guard who had just raised his gun a few inches that I almost pulled a jaw muscle.